This week’s episode of Outlander — centered around the long-anticipated reunion of Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe), who travels across the space-time continuum to once again be with the man she loves — was everything fans of the series could have wanted. It was steamy and romantic and moving and sexy. And I’m just talking about the first few minutes, when Jamie has to take off his trousers after he accidentally spills something on them at the first sight of Claire. For real: If Elaine Benes on Seinfeld had watched this episode, she would have been out of the contest on day one.
In all seriousness, “A. Malcolm” is a standout episode of television, not only because it finally brings the separated protagonists back together, but because it handles its love scenes with such prolonged, detail-oriented, erotic care. Actually, it feels wrong to refer to them as scenes since practically the entire episode is a love scene. Not counting the closing credits, the runtime of “A. Malcolm” is an hour and 13 minutes. About 25 of those minutes are spent on Claire and Jamie preparing for coitus, or engaging in coitus, or having postcoital conversation that leads to more coitus. That’s about a third of the episode and doesn’t even take into account the love-scene-ish encounter between the two early on, in the print shop.
In the hands of writer Matthew B. Roberts and director Norma Bailey — and I have to think the fact that she’s a woman has something to do with this — Outlander takes its sweet, sweet time with its depiction of sex. TV shows and films rarely linger on the lead-up to the intertwining of two bodies to the extent that this episode of Outlander does, in part because romantic relationships often function as side plots to whatever is considered the main story line. On Outlander, the love story between Claire and Jamie is the reason for everything that happens. Watching the two of them get back together and then staying in that moment for a while makes sense; to do anything else would feel like a betrayal of the show’s core values.
Even so, there’s something winkingly sensuous in the way the episode delays the big moment between Claire and Jamie. Outlander knows they want it, and knows we want it, and teases us for a good 40 minutes before it finally allows its hero and heroine to succumb to their desires and, in the process, fulfill ours. In this season more than any other, Outlander is really reveling in the art of slow seduction.
The show also understands that the emotional explosion that happens when these two reconnect is just as important as any orgasms they might have later. That’s why the loveliest moment in the whole episode happens when the two first embrace in that print shop and weep with joy and relief after years of believing they would never see each other again. As viewers, we immediately feel the jolt of everything we’ve been missing, too. Outlander is always, always better when Balfe and Heughan are in it together, their faces side-by-side in the same frame. When they, and we, get that back, it’s magical.
That being said, we still want to see them hit the sheets. After becoming a bit more comfortable in each other’s orbit, and having a couple of almost-heated kisses interrupted, Jamie and Claire finally get down to business in the room in the brothel where Jamie is staying. (Because Jamie is basically perfect, he has apparently not been sampling what the brothel has to offer, apart from its food and lodging.)
“Will you come to bed with me, then?” Jamie finally asks, at which point every hetero woman and gay man watching at home screamed “YES!” at their televisions. But they don’t just slam into each other and start ravaging each other’s bodies, as so often happens in “hot” Hollywood love scenes that inevitably involve some type of furniture getting trashed. They very, very slowly start taking off each other’s clothes. They are tentative, and openly nervous, but simultaneously hungry for and respectful of each other in a way that can only be described as romantic. This goes on for a full five minutes, partly because they have a lot of garments to take off — seriously, strip-poker games must have lasted for weeks in the 1700s — but also because Outlander lets this all unfold in real time, with only a few edits that speed up the process.
Once they finally do get their clothes off, they make love in a way that is alternately silly and exhilarating; at one point, Jamie’s forehead clocks Claire in the nose, leading her to think she may have broken it. But there’s also plenty of moaning and grinding as well, all of which is depicted via occasional wide shots that could be described as somewhat graphic — we definitely see bare breasts and butts and the hints of male parts entering female parts — but never feel, for a second, gratuitous. It is difficult to imagine a show like, say, Game of Thrones, which has started to show more tenderness than it used to in its sex scenes, ever handling the act with this much care and patience.
Visually, what dominates far more than Claire’s or Jamie’s bodies are the expressions on their faces. Bailey achieves a sense of intimacy not by sticking her camera near a tongue or a torso, but by capturing the sparks in the actors’ eyes or the corners of their mouths turning up as they smile at one another in bliss.
The only thing that drains some of the exquisiteness out of the episode is its conclusion, when Claire is confronted by a stranger who breaks into her and Jamie’s room in search of her husband’s ledgers. After Claire says she doesn’t know where they are, the man threatens to rape her. It’s a reminder that Claire and Jamie can’t stay cocooned in their brothel love suite forever. Jamie is evidently involved in some shady business, and that’s going to affect Claire if she plans to stick around and stay married to him.
It’s just a bit of a shame to end on that note after an episode that goes to such admirable efforts to show sex in a dreamy but nevertheless realistic light, unfettered by the male gaze. I suppose in the 1700s — and for that matter, now — Outlander is telling us that this is what comes with the territory when you’re a woman. Even when you find a man who truly honors you and your body, there are always more out there with absolutely no qualms about threatening both.